Sunday, February 17, 2013

365 Comics ...48: Bedlam #4(2013)

This review appears in this week's <a href=""> Thor's Comic Colum</a> alongside fellow Second Printer Devon's Uncanny X-Men review.

(see 365 comics #4 for brief reaction to issue #1)

Bedlam #4 (Image, $3.50)
by Graig Kent

The subtitle of Bedlam reads: “Is evil just something you are or something you do?”  It’s the question at the heart of this series which takes a Tarantino-esque approach to thriller (sub-genre: serial killer) storytelling.  By that I mean it very liberally borrows from its genre forefathers, completely bathed in homage, but also transcending it.

The first two issues of the series were quite a head trip.  The obvious set-up was a Batman-Joker dynamic within the fictional city of Bedlam, however with the Joker character, Madder Red, pushing to ever more drastic extremes to provoke not just the city’s champion (The First) or its police, but the city as a whole.  Madder Red’s final act was a grand scheme to try and make the good people of Bedlam more like him, violent and murderous, seemingly committing suicide in the process.  But despite the masked head rolling around on the floor Madder Red did not die.  Instead he found himself in the care of The Good Doctor who has seen fit to try and “deprogram” Madder Red’s psychotic tendencies, to make him into a viable, average person, named Fillmore. After a decade of treatment, now cooped up in a bachelor apartment, Fillmore becomes obsessed with a recent serial killing case on the news.  He wants to help out, by engaging with Detective Ramira Acevedo but can only do so by taking credit for the killings.

However, these gruesome murders aren’t being done by Fillmore, but a scarred, genetalless man with a pair of iron wings. There’s a connective thread to his murders, but the police can’t figure it out while the bodies pile up.  Fillmore -- the former Madder Red ten years and countless psychological experiments later -- becomes suspect number one, given his quickly rescinded confession, but he’s really just there to help.  It’s a definite toying of with the Silence of the Lambs structure in this regard, as it plays to the similar thriller aspects, rather than murder mystery.

The overall structure of Bedlam is a bizarre one.  The first extra-sized issue, dealt primarily with setting up Madder Red as psycho-supreme in the city, with a diversion into his rehabilitation.  The second issue dives into the serial killer story set-up, while exploring Fillmore’s fragile state of mind.  The third issue brings forward more of Madder Red’s past therapy, while establishing the relationship between Detective Acevedo and the profiling-savant Fillmore.  This issue, unlike the others, is completely story driven, following Avecedo as she cracks the case (Fillmore, meanwhile is on the roof getting re-acquainted with The First), perhaps far too late.  

Having read quite a bit of Nick Spencer’s increasingly prolific output of the past two or three years, I can say this is both par for the course for him, the way he jumps around in focus from issue to issue, but also a surprising change.  He seems to be experimenting with how he dispenses information and details, and ratchets up the complexity of the structure, the timelines purposefully blurred.   However as the series settles, the puzzle pieces are easier to join and the picture is forming nicely, especially here as the series goes from blunt to pointed and sharp.

At the heart of this book is it’s sub-title, examining whether a mass murder can be reformed of his tendencies or if they are embedded within him, while at the same time a damaged man commits increasingly horrific acts, but is evil in his nature or a response some other stimulus?  I doubt Spencer has the answer, and I’m not even certain if he’s attempting to answer it.  The subtitle seems to be something meant to rattle around in your brain as you read it.  I can see a lot of this stemming from the recent (and not so recent) spate of mass killings that have occurred, and Spencer prodding the topic without taking direct focus on any one situation or person.

Artist Riley Rossmo is responsible for portraying the rather dramatic and frequently grizzly imagery in the series, full scope, pencils to colours.  His work in the first three issues was insane, particularly his deft restraint with colour in the flashback sequences.  The black-and-white-and-red sequences involving Madder Red and his transitionary treatments are both disturbing and attractive at the same time.  I keep going back to them.  This issue didn’t feature any and fell a little flatter as a result.  The jarring break those single-colour sequences provided in the book is missed here, though Rossmo’s constant experimentation with line and colour keep things more than interesting enough.  His figure work can feel pretty stilted at times, but the overall effectiveness of the disarming FIncher-esque mood he establishes on every page quite makes up for minor shortcomings.

While it’s hard to disparage the Batman and Joker relationship right now (give the incredible conclusion to “Death of the Family” in the Batman title this week) Spencer has crafted a stimulating twist on it, taking it somewhere deeper and darker he probably couldn’t have gone with DC’s characters  Bedlam is a sober, moody, chilling and graphic bit of business, which, depending on your receptiveness to such things is either great praise or a dire warning.

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